Marijuana Reality Check: Pot Gains Legal Ground in US

But Catholics continue to oppose its use, for reasons grounded in the Church’s moral and social justice teachings.

An activist holds a marijuana plant during the NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally in support of the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use, on May 1, 2021 in New York City.
An activist holds a marijuana plant during the NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally in support of the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use, on May 1, 2021 in New York City. (photo: Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty)

Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana use are blazing across the country at an unprecedented pace, with Catholic moral theologians and policy experts struggling to stop the spread.

This year alone, state legislatures in New York, Virginia and New Mexico have legalized recreational marijuana usage, and legalization legislation is also under consideration in Delaware. The passages come on the heels of successful November 2020 ballot initiatives that legalized recreational use in Montana, Arizona, and New Jersey and South Dakota (though judges in the latter state have blocked the law from going into effect). 

In total, recreational pot is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, an astounding development considering that the practice wasn’t legal in any state only nine years ago, before citizens in Colorado and Washington voted for it. Today, marijuana is legal for medical use in 19 additional states, and is completely illegal in only 14.

Efforts to legalize recreational pot are even picking up steam at the federal level. In December 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which aimed to legalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. It was the first time either chamber of Congress had voted to legalize recreational marijuana.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to legalization. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, supports decriminalizing the practice federally, allowing states to determine their own marijuana laws.


Catholic Opposition

Catholics have been chief among those opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, grounded in the Church’s moral teaching.

Within a section on “Respect for the Dignity of Persons,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense” (2291).

Pope Francis has also spoken on the subject.

“No to every type of drug use; it is as simple as that,” he told an international gathering of drug enforcement agencies in June 2014. The Holy Father added that even narrowly limited attempts “to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

Regarding marijuana, Catholic moral theology is generally opposed to recreational use on the grounds that the practice willfully impedes and alters the mind in order to experience a pleasant, artificially generated state of mind, disconnected from reality. This, explains Dominican Father Aquinas Guilbeau, undermines human freedom and dignity by impairing the capacity for moral reasoning.

“When ‘high,’ the marijuana user does not maintain a sufficient grasp on the real to accomplish acts of friendship and justice,” says Father Guilbeau, a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. “He drifts instead into a kind of fantasy.”

Father Guilbeau distinguishes recreational marijuana usage from the casual consumption of alcohol, which he argues can be “governed by temperance” and also can help partakers engage more fully in reality.

“Whereas a glass of wine can enhance a fine meal, and scotch and a cigar can accompany deep philosophical discussion, marijuana” — because of the way the active ingredient, THC, interacts with the nervous system — “does not add to but distracts from both activities.”

While these dimensions of Catholic moral theology’s application to recreational pot are well-known, public policy advocates mostly stress a wide array of other concerns in their efforts to stop the practice’s legal expansion.

For instance, in Minnesota, the state Catholic conference opposed an attempt to legalize recreational marijuana not primarily by pointing to the moral dimensions of the individual user, but by emphasizing the potential impact on the common good and the vulnerable.

“A spirit of solidarity requires that we reject the wishes of a small segment of the population who may have the means to address the consequences of frequent marijuana use, and instead promote the common good,” said Ryan Hamilton, the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s associate director for public policy. “We don’t need another industry like Big Tobacco that preys on vice and targets youth, the poor, and those who bear the heavy cross of addiction.”

The MCC also rejects the line of argumentation that legalizing recreational marijuana is needed to end enforcement practices that disproportionately affect people of color, contributing to longstanding patterns of social and economic disadvantage. Hamilton says that avenues for reforming criminal justice for low-level drug offenses and even decriminalization can be pursued without “opening the door to a commercial cannabis industry.”

“Let’s promote real justice,” Hamilton says, “instead of propping up an industry that preys on youth, the poor, and persons of color, trapping them in cycles of addiction and poverty.”


Distance From Reality

The odds are stacked against those opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana. Significant shifts in American’s attitudes toward legalization are accompanying the ground the pro-legalization movement is gaining in the legal system.

As of late 2020, an all-time high of 68% of Americans support legalizing recreational pot. The rate has steadily increased every year since the late 1990s, when it hovered below 30%, as it had for decades.

Why the dramatic change in attitude?

Some suggest that greater levels of opposition to legalized recreational weed were simply linked to the fact that the practice was legal. But as social and legal stigma have declined, those who might have previously opposed legalization have less reason to do so.

John-Mark Miravalle, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, points to an underlying, more troubling explanation.

“We are getting progressively farther and farther from delighting in reality,” Miravalle said. “People are only finding delight in drugs and screens, which both, in different ways, distance us from reality.”

Miravalle, author of How to Feel Good and How Not To: Ethics of Using Marijuana, Alcohol, Antidepressants, and Other Mood-Altering Drugs, also says that there is a widespread mistaken association of pleasure with good, and pain with evil, which has contributed to an unhealthy relationship with mood-altering drugs across the board, and has also undermined people’s capacity to develop a discipline for pursuing reality-based joy.

Thus, the carefree vibe of casual marijuana usage may be masking something far more sinister.

“Although popular depictions of [marijuana-induced] incapacity can be humorous, they are in fact tragic,” said Father Guilbeau. “Wise rulers know that society cannot thrive when significant numbers of its members cannot fulfill the basics of justice.”